The first thing you see in Ridge Racer Type 4 isn’t a car, a driver, or even Galaga. It’s a woman, in a room, who hasn’t quite gotten out of bed yet. Credits roll. The sun is breaking through the windows, there’s a world alive outside those walls. She turns up the stereo. Cut to four cars in a synchronized drift, and then a city flyover as the soundtrack swells. She leaves for work, and the title appears with a skyline as the backdrop.

Opening cinematics are rare now, so I fondly remember the days when nearly every game began with a pre-rendered hype film, promising fidelity and an experience hardware couldn’t deliver. But R4’s intro wasn’t simply eye candy; it told a story. It provided context to the entire experience that followed. The PlayStation was home to many fantastic racing games, but R4 was the console’s only racing drama.

This was a year after Gran Turismo revolutionized the genre, and would go on to become the system’s best-selling game. Namco’s arcade staple never tried to be as true-to-life as Sony’s “Real Driving Simulator,” so the developers sought to innovate in another direction entirely.

As the intro ends, you are welcomed to “the world of Ridge Racer.” I never thought much of it as a kid, but I was routinely engrossed in R4’s world. Many racing games have been couched in narratives before, but none could match the depth of R4’s environment, characters, and style. It succeeded where countless other story-driven racers failed. That made it special then, and timeless now.

Indeed, there was a world to explore. You, the player, are a bright up-and-coming name in the Real Racing Roots ‘99 Grand Prix, and invited to join one of the series’ four teams. As a rookie, you’re also given the unusual responsibility of choosing the automaker your team will partner with for the year. Each team has its own story and primary character, a manager with whom you build a relationship over the course of an eight-race season.

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The stories are linear, but they do intersect to a small degree and it’s charming to watch as you ascend from a virtual unknown to a valued member of your club and the sport. The most rewarding element is gaining the trust and respect of your team managers, who are all uniquely flawed and mysterious about the past. Their true colors emerge as you celebrate victories and endure hardships together. My favorite was always Enki Gilbert of R.T. Solvalou, the Enzo Ferrari-analog of the Real Racing Roots, who lost his son, also a racing driver, in an accident. He relives this experience with you, the player, as he gradually transforms from domineering boss to concerned father-figure.

Your choice of team will also determine your desired level of difficulty. Dig Racing Team, representing the United States, is one of the winningest in the sport, but has fallen on hard times, administrative struggles, and seen its budget slashed. The conceit is that joining this team means doing the most with limited resources, making D.R.T. the most challenging club to race for in the game. It’s just another one of R4’s plethora of little design touches that breathes life into its world, making you feel as if you’re striving for something more than a first-place finish.

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“Design” is the appropriate term here, because R4 is just about the most exquisitely crafted racing game I’ve ever played, to this day. The level of love, care, and attention that went into every minute aspect, from the team and manufacturer identities, to the car and track design, music and graphic style of the interface, not to mention the silky-smooth gameplay and visuals, never ceases to amaze me. R4 oozes top-notch production values through and through.

All of these constituent elements converge to create a beautiful fictional universe, the likes of which haven’t been equaled in the genre in three console generations. R4 stands as one of the few games of the early-polygon era that are still aesthetically breathtaking, with its muted color palette and Gouraud-shaded vehicles and environments. Modern systems are of course capable of so much more, but it’s a testament to the strength and cohesiveness of Namco’s vision that no racer since has recaptured the magic of R4’s atmosphere.

As a graphic designer by trade, I could go on forever about R4’s bold, yet minimalist interface. I could rave about Namco’s passionate approach to car design, resulting in the most impressive stable of made-up vehicles in any racing game, full stop. But to me what cements R4’s legendary status is, of all things, its soundtrack.

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This is a collection of songs that work so well together and complement the theme of R4 so perfectly, it’s hard to imagine the game without them. Namco’s Sound Team evolved past the grating, synth-laden, dated happy hardcore vibe of the first two games, retained some of Rage Racer’s industrial influences, and delved into acid jazz, breakbeat, and Japanese house. The result is one of the most varied, eclectic soundtracks of any racing game, but the production is strong enough to allow the music to stand on its own. The swell of the strings in the bridge of “Your Vibe,” the atmospheric crescendo in “Pearl Blue Soul,” the roller-coaster ride that is “Move Me,” the machine gun funk of “Spiral Ahead,” and the towering horns in “Motor Species” (that may as well have been ripped straight out of Cowboy Bebop) are standout moments in a perfect driving soundtrack. Namco was smart to pair specific songs to events in Grand Prix mode – like a film – further establishing R4 as a cinematic drama rather than a mere arcade racer.

The approach to creating R4 seems more relatable to that of an RPG than a racing game, and that’s precisely why it works so well. This is a genre (like all sports genres) typically devoid of context and meaning, relying on pure simulation and gameplay mechanics alone to win players over. And while that’s certainly fine, R4 highlighted a need for storytelling, atmosphere, and world-building in racing games that has been profoundly underserved by the industry. Name the last triple-A racing game with a non-licensed, in-game soundtrack. How about with fictional cars? It’s becoming increasingly rare, which is a shame because we should be pushing the boundaries with new hardware, instead of retreading the same ground.

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Looking at what Namco was able to make 16 years ago, I can barely comprehend the possibilities of a modern title constructed in the same vein. Throw in branching storylines, deeper career management and car customization, and additional manufacturers, events, and teams to really flesh out R4’s world and make Grand Prix mode the ultimate single-player experience. Pack in a league-based online mode where players build teams and compete (ala Driveclub, but with more personalization), and you’ve hooked the multiplayer-centric crowd. Ways to innovate on R4’s example aren’t difficult to imagine; now a developer’s just got to realize that potential.

Until somebody does, I’m going to lead R.T. Solvalou to one more championship. Do it for Enki.

R4 is still available on the PlayStation network and playable on PS Vita; if you have a Vita, you should try it out, as the game has never looked better than on the handheld’s OLED display. Also for more on the graphic design of R4, check out UK-based designer Sean Hass’ excellent study on the game’s track logos here and here.